As Geno Auriemma approaches his 1,000th career game on Feb. 22 at Houston, The Courant will be busy attempting to put his Hall of Fame career into some perspective.
As an example, here is the story, told by Hartford athletic director Pat Meiser, about how UConn decided to hire Geno as their coach in 1985,
Meiser, who served UConn until 1993 as an associate AD after spending six years as Penn State coach, chaired the search committee for the university.
At the time, it was strongly viewed that Nancy Darsch, an assistant to Pat Summitt at Tennessee and on the 1984 Olympic team, was the front-runner for the job.
In fact, the women’s team had been told that it more than “90 percent certain” a woman would be hired to replace Jean Balthaser, who was UConn’s coach from 1980-85.
But as Meiser tells it, something quickly changed.
“We had Nancy Darsch in the candidate pool. But eventually, it was a combination of things, including a communication from the student-athletes that it didn’t matter if the new coach was a man or a woman. And there was the matter of his outstanding interview. It was just so clear was talented and focused enough to be immediately successful.
“Coach Auriemma was the last one to come in for an interview in the spring . You always want to be last in for an interview, but it didn’t matter. It was clear to us that he was a very impressive candidate.
“He had such instinctive knowledge about how to build a program and it was easy to see. I’ve always said that he had done all of the right things in preparation for the interview. Dee Rowe was contacted about him by Bob Cousy. I was called by Debbie Ryan [Auriemma was an assistant at Virginia at the time]. We couldn’t wait to meet the guy.
“He was gladly confident. And I can remember being in a car with him, driving him around campus, after John Toner [the former UConn AD] was going to make him the offer. We were over near the ice rink on campus and I remember saying to him that if he could have success here [at UConn], in men’s and women’s basketball, you can own the state.
“We had many discussions about the power of basketball in the state. We knew we weren’t loaded with many professional teams [aside from the NHL’s Hartford Whalers].
“He came over to my home in Manchester with Kathy [his wife] and I remember his saying to me, ‘I know exactly who I can get to be my assistant. She will be great for women’s basketball. It was Chris Dailey, of course, who I had known as a player when I coached Penn State. I was familiar with her and excited to have her along.
“During the summer and fall preceding the first season, the preparation was very intense. You could tell they knew exactly what they wanted to do, both in terms of image, messaging, visibility and attitude. They were very serious about building a program.
“I knew right away in the first year, when he ran off a bunch of wins [UConn won the first seven straight] that we were headed in the right direction. I knew things would be more difficult, eventually, in the Big East. But having already coached, I knew it would take time to change the culture of a program and create a winning attitude. He gave us big-time glimpses in that first year, extraordinary coaching early on.
“Some may wonder where it came from, but his gut instinct, personality and ability to movitate were all very evident from the start. He was in an environment that allowed him to do the things he needed to do to help a program grow.
“But it wasn’t easy. Chris and Geno shared an office. It was crowded. But at the time, women’s basketball at the country was just emerging. When I was at Penn State, we hosted the national championships in 1976, so I thought I had a sense of what needed to be done; Geno and Chris driving the ship. They were able to get the right student-athletes. Not always the most talented, but a young woman who could be a great team player and receive coaching and be molded into a team.”